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World War II: A Military and Social History

World War II: A Military and Social History

Professor Thomas Childers Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Course No.  810
Course No.  810
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Course Overview

About This Course

30 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Fifty-five million people died in the Second World War, the greatest conflict in human history.

Fifty years later, these lectures ask and answer important questions about this war:

  • Might Hitler have been stopped sooner?
  • Should Roosevelt have foreseen Pearl Harbor?
  • Could more lives have been saved as the Holocaust became known?
  • Did Truman have to use the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
  • Did the Allies come closer to losing World War II than we would like to think?

The origins and expansion of the war in Europe and the Pacific are examined. Military and political strategies and failures are analyzed. Social and economic effects of the war are assessed.

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Fifty-five million people died in the Second World War, the greatest conflict in human history.

Fifty years later, these lectures ask and answer important questions about this war:

  • Might Hitler have been stopped sooner?
  • Should Roosevelt have foreseen Pearl Harbor?
  • Could more lives have been saved as the Holocaust became known?
  • Did Truman have to use the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
  • Did the Allies come closer to losing World War II than we would like to think?

The origins and expansion of the war in Europe and the Pacific are examined. Military and political strategies and failures are analyzed. Social and economic effects of the war are assessed.

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30 Lectures
  • 1
    The Origins of the Second World War
    In this opening lecture, Professor Thomas Childers puts the war into context, examining both its historical importance as the single largest event in human history and shaper of subsequent global events; and its origins, with emphasis on the role of the Versailles Treaty, the international system that emerged from the 1920s, and that system's subsequent failure. x
  • 2
    Hitler’s Challenge to the International System, 1933–1936
    A look at the rise of Hitler's Nazi party in Germany and the ideological and geopolitical wellsprings of his foreign policy, including a tracing of his step-by-step revision of the Treaty of Versailles and a look at the rhetorical style with which he presented his policies to both his domestic audience in Germany and the international community abroad. x
  • 3
    The Failure of the International System
    Why was the threat posed by German foreign policy—especially in the 1930s—not met? This lecture examines the differing dilemmas confronting France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States; as well as the major international crises of 1938 and 1939 as Europe moved relentlessly toward war. x
  • 4
    The Coming of War
    This lecture focuses on the implications of the Munich Conference, examining the ways in which it influenced Hitler's calculations, Stalin's assessments, and even the German military conspiracy against Hitler. The lecture concludes with an examination of the Polish crisis in the summer of 1939 and the stunning ramifications of the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. x
  • 5
    Blitzkrieg
    Blitzkrieg was more than just a revolutionary military strategy; it was an economic and diplomatic one, as well. This lecture examines the reasons why this three-pronged weapon so appealed to Hitler, and then looks at the first use of the Blitzkrieg strategy in the war against Poland in September 1939. x
  • 6
    The German Offensive in the West
    The German Blitzkrieg in Western Europe in the spring of 1940 brought an end to the strange period of "phony war" that had prevailed in the west since September of the previous year. This lecture looks at English and French preparations for the anticipated attack and Hitler's daring strategy, as well as the "miracle of Dunkirk" and the sudden and unexpected fall of France. x
  • 7
    “Their Finest Hour”—Britain Alone
    In the summer of 1940, Germany stood poised for a cross-channel invasion of southern England. Professor Childers offers a close look at the plans for that invasion, Britain's preparations for repelling the Germans, and an analysis of both Churchill's strategic thinking and the naval and air assets his nation possessed. x
  • 8
    The Battle of Britain
    A successful invasion of England hinged on establishing air superiority over both the English Channel and the planned landing zones in southern England. The colossal air battle that began in July 1940 would rage into October and ultimately be won by the Royal Air Force. This lecture examines that crucial and decisive battle. x
  • 9
    Hitler Moves East
    The attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941—Operation Barbarossa—was Hitler's greatest military and political gamble. In this wide-ranging lecture, you'll learn the ideological and strategic reasons for this stunning gambit, and see the role Nazi ideology played in the conduct of German troops as they crossed into Russian territory. x
  • 10
    The Germans Before Moscow
    Despite an extraordinarily successful beginning of Operation Barbarossa that exceeded even German expectations, late 1941 saw the offensive dramatically slowed by unsettling logistical and weather problems. A close look at how and why this happened, with special attention to the extraordinary resilience of the Red Army as winter set in and the German offensive ground to a halt. x
  • 11
    The War in Asia
    Japan's invasion of China in 1937 was the climax of a two-decade evolution in Japanese foreign and military policy that began after World War I. Professor Childers analyzes Japanese designs on Asia, the strategic dilemmas presented by each strategic option, and the impact of events in Europe on Japanese calculations. x
  • 12
    The Japanese Gamble
    After four years of deteriorating relations between Japan and the United States, Japan unleashes a stunningly successful attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. This lecture examines the U.S.-Japan relationship, Japanese planning for the attack, and the ways in which American policy and security lapses contributed to the disasters at both Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines. x
  • 13
    The Height of Japanese Power
    In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese rolled to an unbroken series of triumphs that established their dominance in Southeast Asia and across the South Pacific, including British Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, French Indochina, the Netherlands East Indies, and the American Philippines. This lecture examines this high-water mark of Axis power, concluding with the surprising U.S. victory in the Battle of the Coral Sea. x
  • 14
    Turning the Tide in the Pacific—Midway and Guadalcanal
    Two extraordinary battles, one at sea and one on land, marked the turning point of the war in the Pacific. The first crushes the Japanese Navy and preserves the American position in Hawaii; the second marks the first defeat for Japanese land forces and sets the tone for the ferocious combat that would characterize Japanese-American combat throughout the South Pacific. x
  • 15
    The War in North Africa
    Though the Mediterranean Theater was merely a sideshow for Hitler, it loomed much larger in the strategic thinking of the Western Allies, though provoking considerable conflict within the Western command structure. A look at Hitler's missed opportunities and Great Britain's success in ultimately establishing among the Allies the primacy of her own strategic objectives. x
  • 16
    War in the Mediterranean—The Invasions of Sicily and Italy
    In addition to tracing the course of the campaigns in Sicily and Italy, with particular emphasis on the Anzio landings, the Battle of Monte Cassino, and the liberation of Rome, this lecture analyzes the politics of the war in Italy and the impact of the Italian campaign on the timing of the cross-Channel invasion of France. x
  • 17
    Stalingrad—The Turning Point on the Eastern Front
    A look at the German strategy and Soviet responses that marked the epic struggle for Stalingrad, which lasted from August 1942 until March 1943 and marked the turning point of the war on the Eastern front. After this crushing defeat, the Germans would be forced onto the defensive, and the Russians would begin their long agonizing drive to liberate their country. x
  • 18
    Eisenhower and Operation Overlord
    By early 1944, an Allied invasion of northwestern Europe was no longer in doubt; the only questions were where and when. The preconditions for invasion and the differences within the Allied camp over timing, command structure, and the final plan—along with the Germans' own calculations, problems, and limitations—make for a fascinating lecture. x
  • 19
    D-Day to Paris
    Defense of northwestern Europe had been left to Erwin Rommel, who argued that the key to a German victory was to defeat the Allies at the beaches—and especially to hold fast during those first 24 hours, "the longest day." This lecture traces the last agonizing stages of planning and launching the D-Day invasion, the course of the battle in Normandy and the bocage beyond, and the liberation of Paris. x
  • 20
    Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge
    This lecture examines the Allied plan to cross the Rhine in Holland, the reasons for its failure, and the daring German Ardennes offensive that became the Battle of the Bulge—Hitler's last gasp in the West that set the stage for the Allied advance into Germany in early 1945. x
  • 21
    Advance Across the Pacific
    The American strategy in the Pacific was a largely political compromise between the courses recommended by Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz. The compromise allowed MacArthur to begin his long march back to the Philippines via the Solomons and New Guinea while Nimitz waged a bloody campaign of "island hopping" through the Gilbert, Marshall, and Mariana Islands. x
  • 22
    Turning Point in the Southwest Pacific—Leyte Gulf and the Philippines
    The Battle of Leyte Gulf—marking the first use of kamikaze fighters by the Japanese—was the decisive naval battle in the Pacific after Midway. It broke the back of the Japanese Navy and secured the American landing in the Philippines in December 1944, which raged well into the new year with massive casualties on both sides. x
  • 23
    The Final Drive for Japan—Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the Fire-Bombing of Tokyo
    This lecture examines the battles for both Iwo Jima and Okinawa—the two climatic engagements in the final drive for Japan—and follows both the strategic considerations and bloody consequences of these two deadly confrontations. Fully one-third of all marines killed in the Pacific died on Iwo Jima, while one-fifth of all casualties suffered by the Navy in the entire war were sustained in the waters around Okinawa. x
  • 24
    War in the Air
    World War II introduced a new dimension in warfare: strategic bombing. This lecture traces the evolution of air doctrine, the strategic and moral choices made by the allies, the course of Anglo-American air operations against Germany (and, to some extent, Japan) and the air war's contribution to the ultimate Allied victory over Germany and Japan. x
  • 25
    Hitler's New Order in Europe
    A powerful examination of the evolution of Nazi racial policy from the boycott of Jewish shops at the beginning of the Third Reich in 1933 to the gas chambers of Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945. The lecture includes the ideological origins of Hitler's anti-Semitism, how his ideas were translated from the pages of Mein Kampf to the killing fields and gas chambers of Eastern Europe, and the factors that influenced the degree of Allied response to Nazi mass murder. x
  • 26
    “The Man’s Army”
    The creation of the U.S. armed forces was itself one of the most astonishing accomplishments of the war. The massive military force ultimately required to win a two-front war fought on land, sea, and in the air simply did not exist in 1939 with the U.S. armed forces. This lecture explores both the development of that fighting force and the day-to-day life within it, analyzing the military as both a social and an ethnic melting pot, including the role of the African-American fighting man in a segregated military. x
  • 27
    Daily Life, Culture, and Society in Wartime
    Within only two years, the American economy was forced to become the "Arsenal of Democracy". This lecture examines the role of both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and private entrepreneurs in making that happen, the changing social composition of the work force that resulted, including the massive entry of women into war industries, and the significant social problems that surfaced, especially the positions of African- and Japanese-Americans. x
  • 28
    The Race for Berlin
    A look at the final phase of the war in Europe, including the race for Berlin between the Anglo-American troops who had crossed the Rhine and the Russians who were driving through Poland, and Hitler's suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945. Professor Childers also analyzes the controversy concerning Eisenhower's decision not to rush on to Berlin, "allowing" the Russians to take the city and setting the stage for the Cold War. x
  • 29
    Truman, the Bomb, and the End of the War in the Pacific
    In the summer of 1945, with Germany defeated, the FDR deal and signs of war weariness emerging in the United States, President Truman faced the prospect of a bloody invasion of Japan. This lecture explores the political, military, and moral implications of President Truman's decision to use the new atomic bomb in hopes of forcing an early Japanese surrender. It includes the background of the firebombing raids on Tokyo and other Japanese cities, as well as the actual missions against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. x
  • 30
    The Costs of War
    In this concluding lecture, Professor Childers evaluates the outcome of the war, its meaning in both a global political and military context, and its historical significance. But its real focal point is on an appraisal of the enormous costs of war at a human level, illustrated by the experiences of a single American family. x

Lecture Titles

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Thomas Childers
Ph.D. Thomas Childers
University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Thomas Childers is Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been teaching for over 25 years. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Tennessee and his Ph.D. in History from Harvard University.

Professor Childers has held visiting professorships at Trinity Hall College, Cambridge, Smith College, and Swarthmore College. He is a popular lecturer abroad as well, in London, Oxford, Berlin, and Munich.

Professor Childers has won several teaching awards, including the Ira T. Abrahms Award for Distinguished Teaching and Challenging Teaching in the Arts and Sciences, the Richard S. Dunn Award for Distinguished Teaching in History, and the Senior Class Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

Professor Childers is the author and editor of several books on modern German history and the Second World War. He is currently completing a trilogy on the Second World War. The first volume, Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II, was praised by Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post as “a powerful and unselfconsciously beautiful book.”

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Reviews

Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 90 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Social history I would like to stress that this is not only a course on military battles and campaigns during WW2, but also an excellent exploration of the social history/"life on the homefront" during this period. Lectures such as "Daily Life, Culture and Society" provide a context for understanding the times. As a social scientist myself, I am drawn to those professors who can speak in broad stokes and inter-dynamics as well as facts and figures. Childers is strong in both areas. Therefore each area can inform the other. Highly recommended! January 12, 2009
Rated 4 out of 5 by The importance of this course is that it provides the political and social information that informed the decisions leading to the conflict and its conduct. October 2, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent and thorough This was a detailed and thoroughly researched presentation. I never knew anything about the Pacific theatre, and Prof Childers does an excellent job explaining the historical and geographical contexts, and of course, the major historical events. This was a phenomenal presentation about a broad and long war. August 6, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by More than just a war history... (audio download) Tom Childers' conversational style of lecturing contributed to an environment in which the circumstances leading up to the conflict, the decisions made by leaders during the battles and the subsequent post-war power struggles ultimately has led to the political and social world of today. This survey course succeeds in describing the seeds planted during WWI that fester into regional hatred and prejudice that ultimately results in more than 55 million deaths and countless more millions of lives irreparably changed forever. Two relatively minor points keep me from giving these lectures a '5'....the first deals with the deaths/causalities do not include those from China, with as many as 20 million dead (some authors have it higher). I know there was also a civil war raging at that time, but the brutality of the Japanese against the civilian population cannot/should not be ignored. The second point is more of a gripe....where were the maps in the syllabus? I usually follow the lectures, reading along and using the internet to the fullest extent. On this occasion, I was internetless, having to use my barely adequate geography of the world to understand the logistics of the battles and the strategies of the planning. A map or two would have helped. (I know there are folks out there thinking: "why not just purchase the DVD version?" Well, maybe this might have been one of those times when that just might be true. Alas, I am frugal, and a good listener.) I recommend these lectures, particularly when on sale with a coupon. I also look forward to the 36 lecture update. July 8, 2014
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